A closer look at Aliens: Colonial Marines' story
Spoilers abound, as we dig into Aliens: Colonial Marines' story, and how it fits into the rest of the Alien franchise's narrative...
Warning: this article discusses the plot of Aliens: Colonial Marines, and therefore contains spoilers in abundance. You have been warned.
By now, you've probably read the stinging reviews of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which so far have expressed disappointment at its antiquated shooter mechanics and jittery game engine. But while Colonial Marines isn't close to the kind of experience we'd have liked (you can read our take on the game here), it does at least succeed in one area: with the assistance of some great lighting and James Horner's classic music, it provides a convincing recreation of the planet Acheron, as first imagined by the 1986 movie.
So putting aside shooter mechanics aside for a moment, how does Aliens: Colonial Marines fare from a pure storytelling perspective, and - bearing in mind that Colonial Marines is accepted as canon by 20th Century Fox - how do its events affect the overarching narrative of the franchise? Join us, as we take a closer look.
"All marines dispatched to LV-426 were KIA..."
Colonial Marines opens with an introduction, of sorts, from a familiar face: none other than Corporal Dwayne Hicks (voiced by Michael Biehn, who doesn't sound too thrilled about reprising his role). A static-obscured distress signal apparently recorded directly after the escape from the planet LV-426, the video helpfully brings us up to speed with events.
Aliens saw Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) join an expedition to discover what happened to a colony on Acheron - the exact same place where she and the crew of the Nostromo had picked up a deadly alien some 57 years before. In spite of their superior firepower, the expedition's army of marines was quickly wiped out, leaving only four survivors: Ripley, Hicks, the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and a little girl named Newt.
Colonial Marines takes place 17 weeks after the events of that 1986 classic. Aboard the USS Sephora, a fresh outfit of marines is awakened from slumber by a square-jawed Captain Cruz, who's in charge of a fact-finding mission to find out exactly what happened to the original expedition a few months earlier.
The Sulaco (the ship from the earlier film) has reappeared in LV-426's orbit, which is rather weird, considering the Sulaco was last seen orbiting the planet Fiorina 'Fury' 161, as seen in 1992's Alien 3. Now, Colonial Marines doesn't pretend that the events of Alien 3 never happened, since one character (Lt Reid) makes the following interjection during Cruz's opening ramble:
"Sir, the Sulaco was reported last seen orbiting Fury 161. How is it back over at this planet?" In the first of several rather dismissive counters to quite sensible questions, Cruz replies with a curt, "We don't know how that boat got back here - what we care about is what's killing our marines..."
As the game's protagonist Corporal Christopher Winter wakes up, Cruz has already sent in one detachment of marines to the Sulaco, and they've promptly disappeared. As a member of the group Rhino Two-One Winter (or more accurately, you) have to head into the Sulaco, recover its flight recorder, and find out exactly what's going on.
"We don't leave marines behind"
Naturally, things don't go according to plan. You've barely time to walk from the perspex-and-metal tunnel from the Sephora to the Sulaco before all hell breaks loose and bodies are flying from the Sulaco's ruptured hull. After a bark of encouragement from Cruz, Winter continues onto the disintegrating ship, which is full of injured and dead marines.
Delving further in, the evidence of alien activity's all over the place - cocooned walls dripping with slime, the husks of alien eggs, and the bodies of chest-bursted victims. Even more ominously, there are signs that Weyland Yutani has been aboard, and has been conducting weird experiments at some point in the recent past - there are cameras and computers rigged up everywhere, suggesting that Weyland Yutani has been up to the same sorts of tricks we saw in Alien: Resurrection.
As the search for answers continues, the story takes an abrupt turn; Weyland Yutani's private army of white-clad soldiers shows up, and begins shooting at every marine it sees. "They're trying to hide something, and we sure as hell ain't supposed to be up in here," says Bella, the game's feisty Vasquez analogue.
Within minutes, Weyland Yutani has used the Sulaco's weapons to destroy the Sephora. During an evacuation attempt, a dropship carrying the survivors of the Sephora and the Sulaco crashes on LV-426 - leaving Winter and his comrades with no choice but to explore the gloomy planet, and hope to find a way back off.
"Ooh-rah to ashes"
In spite of the colossal nuclear explosion that rocked Acheron at the end of Aliens, Hadley's Hope - the colony that formed much of the backdrop for the 1986 film - has suffered surprisingly little damage. It's here that the story opens out into a much wider conspiracy; those experiments on the Sulaco are only one part of Weyland Yutani's exploits, with huge bases of operations also set up all over the surface of the planet.
After searching through the remains of Hadley's Hope, Winter and his comrades discover that the company's scientists have not only been experimenting on a captured alien queen (whose introduction is quite effective, incidentally), but they've also discovered the crashed horseshoe-shaped ship, as seen in Alien and the Aliens extended cut.
Having survived brushes with various strains of xeno (and an army of identical human soldiers), Winter rescues a mysterious, hooded fellow marine from the clutches of Weyland Yutani. In an entertaining twist, this enigmatic figure is revealed to be none other than Corporal Hicks.
Here, Hicks reveals the shocking (and implausible) truth: he didn't really die in the opening credits of Alien 3 (where he was apparently crushed in his cryotube), but remained on the ship when the escape pod was ejected. Apparently, Michael Weyland - the human model on which the Bishop series of androids was based - tracked the Sulaco, and boarded it with his private army, triggering the ship's emergency systems. Arresting Hicks after Ripley, Bishop and Newt had been ejected, Weyland took him and the Sulaco back to LV-426.
Now, this revelation results in an awful lot of questions - most pressingly: if it wasn't Hicks' corpse that was found crushed in Alien 3, whose was it? "That's a longer story. I care about one thing: taking these guys down. It's all I've got left, guys."
Well, thanks, Hicks. It isn't clear what the company were trying to torture out of Hicks, or even why Captain Cruz was so desperate to rescue him - his excuse is that Hicks knew the departure time for a faster-than-light ship, which could take them all home, which sounds rather flimsy to us.
"Bella, you are going to die"
After lots more alien slaughter, Winter, Hicks and the rest of the cast manages to ram their dropship into the departing faster-than-light ship. And following a disappointingly brief tussle with an alien queen, it seems that all is well. But wait! There's a final twist. Hiding away on the ship, we're told, is the figure behind the chaos, Michael Weyland.
In a final cutscene, Winter's raging brother-in-arms O'Neal confronts Weyland, determined to blow his brains out for the death of his friends. When O'Neal hesitates, Hicks steps in and delivers the fatal bullet to the head, revealing that Michael Weyland wasn't Michael Weyland, but yet another android.
Bishop nobly has his brain connected to the Weyland in order to find enough evidence to bring down the company - presumably, at an industrial tribunal or something. "We got everything," Bishop says, as their ship drifts off into deep space.
And that, anticlimactically, is the end of the story. Clearly, it's intended to leave lots of scope for a sequel - possibly, one where Winter goes on a Zero Dark Thirty-style hunt for the real Weyland - but rather like last year's Prometheus, the game also serves to shoot more holes in the Alien mythos than add new ideas of its own.
As a return trip to Acheron, Aliens: Colonial Marines isn't a terrible effort; franchise obsessives can enjoy picking through the remnants of Hadley's hope, and there are all sorts of Easter eggs lying around for those who do. But like the game as a whole, the story doesn't entirely hang together. For one thing, its characterisation is incredibly thin; the game needed an outsider to function like Ripley - an expressive counterpoint to the brusque machismo. The returning Bishop could easily have done this, but for whatever reason, Colonial Marines' writers chose to relegate him to little more than a bored voice in an earpiece.
Worse still, the script, as written by Battlestar Galactica's David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, is irksomely repetitive, and full of stock action phrases. It's a far cry from James Cameron's Aliens script, which as the legion of reviews for Colonial Marines prove, is infinitely quotable.
On a more positive note, one or two of the story's moments really come off. The game's most enduring image is, perhaps, the mysterious horseshoe Engineer ship bathed in security lights, the mysterious jockey within surrounded by scaffolding and research gear.
Colonial Marines ends with the hint of more adventures to come, and with the return of Hicks and the introduction of a group of new characters, the game should have marked a new beginning for the franchise. But regrettably, as the dismal reviews continue to roll in, it's becoming increasingly likely that this belated, interactive sequel to James Cameron's 1986 classic may be the only return trip to Hadley's Hope we'll see - for the foreseeable future, at least.
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